Monday 24 May 2021

Movie REVIEW: Kamen Rider Saber: The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin

Kamen Rider Saber: The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin

It's usually around the winter time that Kamen Rider fans look forward to the latest crossover movie, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging things had to be done a little differently in 2020. With Kamen Rider Zero-One the Movie: REALxTIME postponed from its original summer release date, the typical movie scheduling Toei have kept for both Kamen Rider and Super Sentai was thrown into chaos. The Mashin Sentai Kiramager movie was pushed back to Spring 2021 to feature alongside other Super Sentai productions, with a short Kamen Rider Saber movie taking its place to create a Kamen Rider Splendid Double-Feature event at the end of December. At only 22 minutes long, Kamen Rider Saber: The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin is the shortest Kamen Rider movie there has been in some time. As such, the film was properly labelled as a "short movie" ("Gekijō-tanpen") rather than given the usual movie-prefix ("Gekijō-ban").

BachtThe Swordsmen arrive

The immortal swordsman Bacht has resurrected, unleashing the Book of Ruin to destroy the Wonder World and in turn make the real world cease to exist. The only ones who can stop him are the Sword of Logos swordsmen, of whom Bacht seems to show a particular dislike towards. Touma, Rintaro, Kento, Ryo, Ren and Tetsuo leap into action as Mei and many others watch on from the distance.

Although Bacht transforms into Kamen Rider Falchion, Touma is able to quickly overpower him. But much to his shock, Bacht instantly resurrects - taunting that nothing will stop his plan to "return everything to the void". However Kamen Riders never give up, and in the face of adversity Touma will unlock new powers to overcome this apocalyptic threat.

Kamen Rider FalchionKamen Rider Saber Emotional Dragon

Kamen Rider Saber: The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin has some good ideas. With the running time cut down so severely naturally the film can't do what most Kamen Rider films would, so instead it's entirely dedicated the swordsmen's one and only showdown with Bacht. From a visual standpoint it's definitely ambitious - turning the whole story into one big action piece that's able to show off each character in Saber's sizeable cast. The moments of the other Riders facing off against a hoard of Shimi as Saber battles Falchion head on are suitably flashy, with one getting to show off their moves whilst adding to the dialogue with the usual interjections about humanity’s potential, the strength of their resolve and how they’ll never give up. If there’s anything this film does best, it’s delivering on how important that ensemble is to Saber as a whole. That sequence of the six of them rolling up into battle and transforming simultaneously doesn’t just set the tone for the whole thing - it’s undoubtedly the best bit in the entire movie.

Equally great are the very brief moments we spend with Mei, who watches the battle alongside a child explaining how the Kamen Riders defend the world in secret and never give up. Similarly we see Touma briefly meet the same child at the beginning of the film, encouraging him to play football with others with his motto of "only you can decide how your own story ends". Cliche as it might seem, whenever Kamen Rider does anything like this it never fails to be both memorable and empowering. Not to mention that Touma's interactions with children were a particularly great element of Saber's early episodes, and it's a real shame that those were pretty much dropped entirely as the show progressed (potentially due to COVID filming regulations, but we may never know for sure).

Saber and FriendsMei watches on

The problem is though, all of these is the kind of thing that specials have been able to achieve in 5-10 minutes in the past. The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin is 22-minutes long, and arguably has less depth than your average Toei Tokusatsu Fan Club special. On the one hand you might be tempted to cut the film some slack since it's billed as a short movie as opposed to a full theatrical title, but then again Toei have been doing 20-30 minute "movies" since the 70s and nearly all of them have more substance than this. Super Sentai does it annually, and even though a lot of the time those plots could do with expansion they're usually able to make a good go of the limited time they had. The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin doesn't even feel like a self-contained film - it feels like the third act to a longer film that we're never going to see.

There’s no real story to this film, no character development or even proper motivation to begin with - everything just happens as we see it unfold onscreen. A few sentences from Tassel at the beginning is all we get to establish who Bacht is and what he’s planning to do. While Bacht would go on to appear in the series properly and have some semblance of a backstory there (and even then it’s brief enough that it could have been reworked for this), here he’s an entirely one note villain - a seemingly unstoppable force that wants to reduce everything to nothingness because humanity is incapable of bettering itself. With friendship being such a core theme of Saber it’s sad to see the dynamic between Touma and Bacht reduced to something so unsubstantial, and actor Masashi Taniguchi (most notably Jin Takayama/Kamen Rider Amazon Alpha in Kamen Rider Amazons, as well as Nagare Tatsumi/GoBlue in KyuuKyuu Sentai GoGoFive) does such a great job of selling Bacht as this unhinged monstrosity that you’re desperate to see more of him.

Since there’s not really a plot to let things happen naturally, the usual movie Rider tropes feel even more forced than usual. In a typical Kamen Rider film the appearance of the movie-exclusive form should feel like a triumph - a true moment of the titular Rider overcoming the odds to defeat the villain in one last showdown. Here, the arrival of Emotional Dragon doesn’t feel earned - Touma simply declares that he’ll never give up and that’s all it takes. Once again it feels like there should have been build up to the Wonder Book being created, but we’re only getting the final moments of that.

Touma fights onRider Kick!

It’s clear that Kamen Rider Saber: The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin was created at a difficult time, but that doesn’t change how much of an afterthought it feels. While Super Sentai is consistently able to produce self-contained movies at restricted running times that still feel “bigger” than the television production, Kamen Rider feels like it simply chopped the last 20 minutes of a 90 minute film and called it a day. The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin feels akin to watching something like Kamen Rider World or Kamen Rider: Riding All Over the World - specials that manage exactly the same impact in even less time. The biggest shame in all of this is that it feels like something self-contained would actually fit Kamen Rider Saber really well, and with the latter half of this year being bogged down with crossover and anniversary movies it might not actually get that.


M said...

What did you think of Falchion and Emotional Dragon suits?

Alex said...

LOVE the Falchion suit, but I’m pretty indifferent to Emotional Dragon. Honestly I haven’t liked any of the Saber upgrades apart from Dragonic Knight.